Ireland After NAMA has turned five years old. Happy birthday to us!
Any sense of celebration, however, almost immediately gives way to a reflection on the circumstances that led to the genesis of the blog and the events that have fed its life and thoughts for the past five years. So we felt a useful way to mark the event might be to reflect a bit on Ireland’s crisis five years on.
After all, Ireland After NAMA is a child of the crisis. Established by a group of academics, mostly in the discipline of Geography but also encompassing other disciplines such as Sociology and Planning, the initial impetus was two-fold: a desire to collectively understand the quickly shifting sands of Ireland’s crisis and to find ways to respond to this that were more proactive and publically oriented. Part of this rationale was a sense that public discourse was characterised by macro-economic perspectives that paid little attention to the social impacts that were going to play out through the crisis.
The title of the blog itself reflected this: the establishment of NAMA – which had been formulised into law the month before, and as such is also five years old – being a high-level policy response, implemented in a reactive fashion, which would profoundly affect Irish society. With NAMA now expected to wind up its operations sooner than expected, or at least change its mandate to one of ‘development’ rather than ‘asset management’, it is possible that the blog will be ‘after NAMA’ in a different sense.
Our modest hope at the outset was that the blog would provide a platform for Irish geographers, sociologists, and other social scientists to contribute analysis and opinion to public debates about the crisis, to highlight how this plays out in socially and spatially unevenly ways, and to act as a counterbalance to the predominance of particular strands of economics in public debate.
The experiment quickly exceeded our expectations in terms of readership, partly as a result of posts on the issue of housing vacancy and unfinished estates attaining a level of ‘viral’ popularity that catapulted particular contributors of the blog into the media spotlight. But, as conversations with various people over the years have attested to, this was also a reflection of a burgeoning public appetite for alternative sources of news and analysis. Moreover, the blog also gave the possibility to highlight some of the less discussed elements of geographical research that has emerged throughout the last number of years.
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk makes the point that the word ‘crisis’ has its roots in a Greek term denoting a cross-roads, a decisive turning point in which things can go one way or another. Ireland After NAMA was the product of such a cross-roads. The early stages, in particular, were experienced by us as a combination of dread and excitement at the rapidly mounting debris of the economic collapse and the capacity for progressive transformations that this seemed to simultaneously engender.
The years that have followed have seen a waxing and waning, though never an erasure, of this feeling that change is possible. On the one hand, the broad government response to the crisis has been one of redoubled neoliberalism. Ireland’s crisis has tended to be explained in terms of rogue individuals and wayward policies rather than systemic problems, while the resultant set of policy responses have broadly supported market logics at the expense of social redistribution to the most vulnerable sections of society, who have also taken the brunt of austerity measures.
For many of us it has been disheartening to see the collective energies of various sections of society, who were calling out systemic failure and calling for systemic change, being ignored in favour of the continuation of an increasingly regressive and destructive status quo. The quick and easy return of an uncritical attitude towards property development has been particularly jarring for obvious reasons. Such an approach to crisis ‘fixing’ seems likely only to sow the seeds of a further crisis further down the road, one with perhaps much worse social impacts than the current one. This is perhaps another frustration of watching the logic of property development take hold once more. That sense of inevitability that comes with a lack of tangible change in the political economic structures that led to the crisis in the first place.
There are many aspects of Ireland’s crisis trajectory that can be brought to mind to make us angry or despondent, to dissipate hope and institute a cynical inertia. But to judge the transformations of the last five years against the initial flurry of dread and excitement is to privilege the flare over the incremental changes that this flare has fed.
Much has changed in these five years indeed. It is easy to see this at present with the ever rising tide of water protests creating a context of revolutionary sentiment that has been impossible for the political and media establishment to ignore. Even a few months ago this seemed unlikely. The new narrative of economic recovery was quickly becoming normalised and Fine Gael were predicting comfortable re-election if they could just stay on message that their policies of economic liberalism and austerity were working. The macro-economic picture of supposed economic recovery was touted as unambiguous fact, despite not being felt by the population. Yet, we are now on the precipice of a very different moment as this confidence has crumbled amidst mounting protests.
This is testament to the momentum of the campaign and to the capacity for change that popular and organised protest can bring. But aside from the immediate issue and the mobilisation around it, it is also indicative of just how much underlying attitudes in Ireland have changed over the course of the crisis. While successive Irish governments have met a neoliberal crisis with neoliberal solutions the consensus around such measures is far from hegemonic.
This is the result of the multiple activities of multiple groups of people, both overtly political and more mundane, over the course of the five years of crisis. Included in this are campaigns around mortgage arrears, the right to housing, the destruction of the community sector, and a range of other issues. But also included are the shifting content of pub conversations, community gatherings, and a host of other everyday activities. We would hope that over the years posts on Ireland After NAMA have been helpful in expanding the contours of such debates.
However, this blog has been only one small part of an ecosystem of new social media that emerged out of a perceived need. While the mainstream media has in many ways returned to its conservative default position, there is now a much healthier ecology of alternative media outlets. A host of blogs and more formalised publications such as Rabble or The Journal.ie, for example have gone some way to filling a vacuum that presented itself in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Ireland After NAMA continues to form a part, though not a central one, in these evolving media ecosystems.
Perhaps more importantly, with five years of posts it has become a record and a repository of material on the crisis and the evolution of ways of thinking about it over time. This and other similar archives will in years to come provide a record of how issues and events evolved over the course of the crisis and how we struggled to understand them as they happened.
It is probably fair to say that we now have a more detailed understanding of events leading to Ireland’s crisis. But in many ways we are still in and not beyond this crisis. Indeed, in a recent article the geographer Brett Christophers suggests that it is problematic to speak of the ‘the crisis’ as a singular event and reminds us that a crisis for one country or one group of people is often the opposite for another; such is the nature of capitalism. As such, Ireland is still (to re-appropriate a well-known foundation myth) ‘dancing on the cross-roads’ of crisis. This certainly means that there is still a lot of pain, suffering, and hardship. But it also means that we can still choose which road to take.